Honesty is simple, but it is not always easy. Among the hardest things a change leader or project manager has to do, are those conversations that relay uncomfortable truths.
It is not just because we don’t like the discomfort of it all, or because we cherish our popularity; there is a real risk that, if it goes badly, the conversation can derail the whole project or initiative.
Giving people bad or uncomfortable or unwanted news can flip their focus from the rational to the irrational, and their response can become unpredictable. The one message can become the whole deal for them. And if they have sufficient power, they can hijack a whole agenda.
No wonder, therefore, that we would often prefer simply to send an email. It’s quick, it’s detached and we can think it through and write it as we want to: no chance of mis-speaking. Of course, we all know that is the wrong approach: if only we acted on that knowledge!
I first became aware of the phrase “speak truth to power” in that cauldron of political learning, The West Wing. The origins of the phrase go back to an injunction to Quakers and has been re-used frequently by political writers since the mid 20th Century.
But the concept is, of course, far older: in ancient Greece, the concept of saying everything, being bold and speaking without fear was called parrhesia.
The real challenge is how to do this effectively. Even if you discount the personal risk of losing face, being shouted at or getting the sack, speaking fearlessly can change everything. So it is necessary to ensure that the change, if it comes, is controlled.
Fearless speaking is not about being brave enough to dive in. The courage you need is to face up to the complexity of your message and make the time to prepare. This unfortunately means living with the stress for a little longer. In planning, you have two objectives:
1. Communicate you message
2. Control the emotional states of you and the other person
The common mistake is to treat the first of these as most or all of the challenge.
The key to controlling your emotions is preparation plus a few extra tips (which I’ll save for a future blog post). Controlling the other person’s emotions is far harder. If they refuse to cede control to you, there is nothing you can do. Five things that will help:
- Give them time to work things out for themselves and make time to listen to them
- Keep facts simple and express things as clearly as you can
- Give them a back door – when they get the message and need to save face, have some extra information to offer. That way, they can blame you for not knowing that one fact, rather than take responsibility for holding out
- Be prepared to declare that the situation has broken down
- Reiterate your commitment to them and to what you are doing
The “so what?”
Speaking truth to power is no fun, but it most often goes wrong when you focus on the truth, rather than the power.